Tag Archives: contemporary art

Take Up Your Cross and Suffer Through This Exhibition

If you happen to be traveling on the Tube, London’s subway network, during this season of Lent, you may come across some rather provocative billboard images of Jesus on the train platforms.  These posters are advertising an exhibition of the work of a number of contemporary artists called “Stations of the Cross”.  While the pieces are designed to grab the viewer’s attention, in the end one has to reject their premise, and question why a Christian church would host such an exhibition.

Marylebone is the home of the BBC’s Broadcasting House, Sherlock Holmes, and Madonna, among others; this scrivener lived there during graduate school.  It is an area consisting primarily of rather large Georgian and Regency-era terraced houses; among the churches in this former village, now very much a part of central London, the most prominent is the Anglican church of St. Marylebone, built between 1813-1817.  This is the venue for the “Stations of the Cross” show, and one wonders what former members of this church – Charles Wesley, for one – would have made of it.

In looking over the images chosen for the exhibition, some are well-executed, thought-provoking examples of contemporary artists considering the story of Christ’s Passion. There is a cleverly telling piece in which, instead of placing Christ before Pilate or the Sanhedrin, He is stood before a panel on a show like “American Idol”, to judge whether He lives or dies. It is not hard to imagine that He would be condemned by our 21st century pop culture just as He was by 1st century culture.  Similarly, there is a beautifully executed, geometric rendering of the Crown of Thorns that one could see being used as, for example, a stamping on the cover of a hymnal or prayer book.

The majority of the images however, are simply poorly-executed, head-scratchers, or just plain dumb. For example, several of the artists have chosen to make allusions to the practice of capital punishment, and as someone opposed to its use, I understand the point they are trying to make.  Yet putting Jesus in an electric chair denies the lengthy suffering that was crucifixion, which medically speaking is death brought about by asphyxiation. One wonders whether they would portray Jesus being aborted as a baby, or euthanized as an old man, but one can imagine why not.

Another artist has employed altered images of the famous Jacques-Louis David painting of the French revolutionary Marat, dead in his bathtub. Given that Marat was hardly a Christian, – and that’s putting it mildly – it makes no sense why his image would be the basis for this manipulation. Jesus was not put to death for whoring about while writing awful poetry. And then there is a photograph called “Phat Jesus”, which is simply tired old pornographic trash emanating from a diseased mind, the sort of thing that we’ve all seen before in supposedly edgy art magazines.

The apparent moral problem in criticizing this display is that the impetus for the event is a good one. The exhibition hopes to raise funds in the ongoing search for a man who has been missing for ten years, and to raise awareness of a group dedicated to helping find missing people.  Dare one criticize an event that hopes to achieve something good?

Unfortunately, yes, but it must be said, not really because of the artists themselves. The fact that moral relativist artists can create and put on such a show should not surprise anyone: blasphemy is a cliché that has been worked to death since the dawn of Modern Art, for the simple reason that Christians are an easy target, and tend not to fight back. The real issue is why a Christian church would agree to host this exhibition in the first place, particularly during Lent. I will leave that to the reader to decide.

The best that can be said for this exhibition, it seems to me, is that if you are in London and want to engage in a penitential act during this season of Lent, go along and see how much the world continues to hate Jesus. He told us this would happen of course (St. John 15:18), and in an age which is becoming increasingly hostile to Christians, it is perhaps not a bad thing to be reminded of that fact. Clearly this is something that the powers that be at St. Marylebone forgot.

"View of St. Marylebone Church" by Thomas Shepherd (1828)

“View of St. Marylebone Church” by Thomas Shepherd (1828)

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Going the Wrong Weiwei

Earlier this week, an artist upset at the fact that a museum in Miami was not, to his mind, showcasing enough local art decided to do something about it.  He marched into an exhibition of work by the well-known Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, picked up one of the vases that formed part of an art installation, and smashed it to pieces.  This type of vandalism seems to be occurring with greater frequency of late, such as the incidents at the Menil Collection and at Westminster Abbey, which I have written about previously.  Paradoxically, one of the reasons for this uptick in criminal behavior, I believe, is the faulty philosophy being spouted by contemporary artists like Mr. Weiwei himself, among others, who have not thought through the implications of the path down which they are leading us.

Ai Weiwei seems strangely disturbed by what took place at the museum.  I say “strangely”, because this installation by Mr. Weiwei – whose appeal remains a mystery to me – consists in part of a group of antiquities which he himself vandalized.  As ArtNews Daily reported:

Ai had painted the urn, which dates from the Han dynasty of 206BC-220AD, in bright colours as part of his “Coloured Vases”, on show at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Behind it stood a trio of large photographs depicting the artist dropping another Han dynasty pot to the floor, where it shatters into little pieces, “to express the notion that new ideas and values can be produced through iconoclasm”.

For someone who engages in vandalism as part of his “art”, it would seem to be just a teeny-weeny bit hypocritical for Mr. Weiwei to become angry at another artist for doing precisely the same sort of thing that he does.

More to the point, for Mr. Weiwei to suggest that “ideas and values” result through iconoclasm is, rather paradoxically, for him to mimic those who are oppressing him.  By uttering such poorly-considered statements, he seemingly approves of the very sort of repressive purging which, for example, his own country went through under Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where anything and everything that smacked of artistic innovation or freedom of expression was destroyed.  One would think that someone whom the art community fawns over as being a prisoner of conscience would demonstrate that he does, in fact have a conscience, at least when it comes to respecting the artistic creations of others, let alone the cultural heritage of his own civilization.

Iconoclasm tears down; it does not create.  Going into a museum and smashing a work of art to make a point, as occurred here, is reprehensible.  However it is precisely in the type of anarchy being celebrated by the contemporary art community that such practices become a self-fulfilling prophecy of what will happen to other museums and galleries in the future.  For in the end, if the artist himself does not respect the object, then why should the viewer? Promoting certain acts of artistic vandalism for the sake of creating art of questionable value, while at the same time decrying others, is not only an example of faulty reasoning, but evidence that things are headed in the wrong direction.

Still from video of artist smashing a vase from the Ai Weiwei installation

Still from video of artist smashing a vase from the Ai Weiwei installation

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Looking at Loss with Sculptor Kevin Francis Gray

The 19th century loved sorrow and the macabre.  Perhaps it was triggered by the death of Prince Albert, which plunged the British Empire into socially-enforced mourning for decades.  Or perhaps it was brought about through the exploration of dark stories by Romantic authors and composers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Hector Berlioz.  However it came about, there is a discernible fascination with isolation and death which permeates Western cultural output in the 19th century.

This undercurrent continues to fascinate popular culture today, as can be evidenced by successful television series like “The Walking Dead”, but also in high culture, such as in the work of Irish sculptor Kevin Francis Gray. Born in Northern Ireland in 1972 and now working in London, Mr. Gray’s work is evocative of both the 19th century academic tradition in sculpture, and the 19th century fascination with loss.  At the same time, he is looking at our own society and realizing how very sad and disconnected we often are in our relationships with each other.

The Academic tradition which dominated the artistic establishment in the West throughout the 19th century pursued realism, using the study of the Classical tradition from Greece and Rome as the basis by which to achieve it.  In his execution, and in his understanding of the possibilities of materials such as bronze and marble, Mr. Gray could be seen as the product of this tradition.  However when the viewer takes a closer look, he realizes that despite the surface polish and perfection, there is something else going on in Mr. Gray’s work.

One perfect example of this is Mr. Gray’s series of sculptures of standing figures sporting extraordinary beaded veils, which come down across the face and hang all the way to the floor.  At a distance, they appear to be straightforward, realistic sculptures of people, who just so happen to be wearing an odd curtain over their face.  However draw a bit closer to the white marble statue of a girl in a tank dress, and one can see that beneath the veil the face is that of a skeleton.  It is a shock worthy not only of the 19th century masters of the macabre, but more importantly a look back to the Middle Ages and to Baroque Spain and Italy of the “Memento Mori”, seen everywhere in the 16th and 17th centuries from tombs of Popes to still lives of game and rotting fruit.

Another example of Mr. Gray’s unexpected combination of interests is his 2013 “Twelve Chambers”, recently unveiled at Pace London.  It features twelve life-size, bronze figures, modeled from people whom the artist met around his London studio.  The grouping is not uniform, in that the figures seem to be moving in different directions; all are experiencing different emotions, many quite somber and sad.  While no doubt not the artist’s intention, if you want to get some idea of what the Catholic concept of Purgatory is like, where we must wait around and reflect on how we have failed God and our fellow man by not loving either enough, this may be as good a contemporary visualization as any you will find.

And then there is Mr. Gray’s extraordinarily sensitive, luxurious draping, particularly when used as a veil.  We can find in art history several examples of sculptors who were able to capture the look of fabric stretched across a human face, but this was so hard to do that few actually managed to achieve it with any level of plausibility.  Yet in his marble “Ballerina” from 2012,  just one example among many of his technical prowess, Mr. Gray not only manages to veil the face of his model in a realistic way, but covers much of her upper body in the same diaphanous fabric.  It stretches across and pools behind her, leaving her pretty dancers’ legs and pointed feet exposed, thus giving us a clue to her profession.

It is a joy to see someone who has studied and learned from the artistic tradition that came before him, who is at the same time able to interpret it in a way that speaks to living in the 21st century.  Mr. Gray’s figures put us in mind of how distanced we have become not only from the reality of how short this life is, something the Victorians understood all too well, but also from each other.  We so often hide ourselves in different personae on social media, rather than forming real relationships, or we live rather paradoxically in virtual isolation inside a multi-story apartment building full of people whom we never speak to.  We are all of us, in some way, veiled to one another, not allowing reality to penetrate, perhaps because we fear suffering and death as much as we fear each other.

Art like Mr. Gray’s makes you think, reflect on your own life, and ask yourself what exactly you are doing with that gift of life you have been given.  His particular genius is being able to do so while still bringing us the aesthetic pleasure of admiring his craft.  It is why work such as this can still move us, even in our very jaded and self-centered age.

Gray

Irish sculptor Kevin Francis Gray with “Twelve Chambers” (2013) in the background

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The Church Nobody Wanted

There was nothing particularly remarkable about the old village church in Montegiordano, until a contemporary artist decided to buy it and move it to New York.

Located in the Calabria region of Italy, the Church of the Madonna del Carmine (Our Lady of Mount Carmel) is a Neo-Baroque structure in the architectural tradition of the Roman Jesuit churches, which had such a tremendous influence on the development of ecclesiastical architecture not just in Italy but in Spain and, by extension, in the Americas.  This particular parish church was built in the 19th century, but it was later desecrated, deconsecrated, and left to ruin.  The local community subsequently built a new church to replace it, an exact copy of the old one.

Now there is something of an uproar going on, for Italian contemporary artist Francesco Vezzoli has purchased the ruined property, and is in the process of shipping it, stone by stone, to MoMa’s PS1 exhibition hall in New York.  Although Vezzoli purchased the ruins legally, local residents have filed a complaint with the Italian Ministry of Culture arguing that the ruined church should be categorized as local cultural heritage, which would therefore be protected from export.  For the time being therefore, the stones of the old church are sitting in an airport hangar, awaiting resolution of the issue.

Italy has among the strictest export laws in the world when it comes to its national heritage.  Almost any work of art more than 50 years old may be classified as a cultural object, and the process to obtain an export license for an object to leave the country involves significant government hurdles.  And this restriction on export extends to buildings, so that given the ruins in question are over a century old, there is no question that they would fall under Italian export restrictions.

Vezzoli is part of a breed of contemporary artists more interested in becoming celebrities or fashion magazine layout editors than they are in producing substantive works of art.  He likes to do the expected thing of insulting conservatives in his films and making pornographic and blasphemous photograph collages, which of course is nothing new and frankly rather boring.  He is perhaps most famous for getting Lady Gaga to play and sing on a giant pink Steinway covered in butterflies while surrounded by dancers from the Bolshoi, so safe to say the less said about his rather feeble art the better.

Yet the issue here, when it comes down to it, is not the virtue of what Vezzoli intends to do with this building, but how he was able to obtain it in the first place.  This is no longer a consecrated church, after all, so anyone could buy it.  Instead of being cared for the building was simply neglected, and allowed to fall further and further into ruin.

No doubt there are at least some in the community who do not like to imagine what the artist intends to do with the structure, since apparently he intends to project his films onto its walls.  Given what his films usually deal with, this is an understandable concern, for there can be little doubt that the artist relishes the idea of showing his work on the walls of a former Catholic church. However in this controversy we can see a bit of what is plaguing the Church today, not just in this little town in Italy but indeed here in the United States as well.

When we read about the outcry over old churches in places like Boston, Buffalo, and Chicago having to be closed down, there is an understandable sadness over how these beautiful structures and their furnishings are disappearing.  People will typically blame their bishop or others in the diocese when these things happen.  Yet rarely do they point the finger of blame at themselves.

There are many reasons why old churches get closed down, but in a significant number of cases the issue is one of attendance.  You cannot afford to keep the roof on a large, non-residential building which only a couple of dozen people of average income use on a regular basis. And God bless those people who are hanging on, and showing up every week or indeed every day, to keep some life in these old churches.  Those of us who care about our parish communities have a duty to support them as best we can, regardless of how large or small those communities are.

Yet for all that, without drawing in more people, we are only doing half our job.  The churches are empty because we are not going out and bringing in people to fill them.  When we think about being One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, we must remember that the Apostles had to be out and about quite a bit, because that was what Christ told them to do.  The Great Commission was not, “Go, and straighten all the hymnals in the pews before mass.”

This little town in Calabria may not have thought about it, but in failing to tear down or renovate their old church, and leaving it to grow covered with weeds and further deteriorate, they gave the impression that they did not care about it.  Now they have realized what they have done, and perhaps they can rectify the situation.  Safe to say, though, another ruined and neglected church property will almost certainly be available for Vezzoli to purchase somewhere else.

It is indeed highly regrettable that an anti-Catholic artist was able to purchase this old church to display art which will undoubtedly be in eye-rollingly bad taste. However if we are not making our faith a vibrant one, and actually evangelizing to others rather than simply talking about how terrible it is when these sorts of things happen, then we will undoubtedly see even more incidents such as this.  In the end that is the real lesson to take away from the story of this church that, until recently, nobody wanted.

Carmine

Ruins of Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
Montegiordano, Italy

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The Shock of the Newborn

British contemporary artist Damien Hirst, he of the sheep or sharks displayed in tanks filled with formaldehyde, is certainly no stranger to controversy.  The type of public outcry normally associated with Hirst, such as the infamous “Sensation” exhibition, often causes those of us with a more traditional set of sensibilities to recoil in horror.  However with his latest effort, Hirst may find himself being embraced by those with conservative values, placing himself at least temporarily in danger of alienating many of those who fell all over themselves to praise him in the first place.

Hirst’s newest work, an installation entitled “The Miraculous Journey”, consists of 14 large bronze sculptures of a child, portrayed at various stages of development from conception to birth.  It was commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority, and placed outside of the Sidra Medical and Research Center in Doha, the capital of Qatar.  The largest single sculpture, that of the newly born child himself, stands 45 feet tall.

Tellingly, in reporting on this massive work of art, the New York Times fails to explore the inescapable pro-life message which it sends.  Being the Times, the article focuses instead on the portrayal of sex and nudity in the Muslim world, reminding the reader – as if the reader was so stupid not to already be aware of it –  that women in Qatar live in a very conservative, traditional Islamic environment.  The piece spends far more time celebrating the fact that a woman commissioned the sculpture, and talking about Hirst’s checkerboard career to date, than it does examining the message of the art itself.

For example, the article quotes Mr. Hirst as explaining that once he himself became a father, be became interested in the miracle of childbirth.  “Everyone talks about our life’s journey,” he commented to the Times, “but we have a whole journey before you’re born.”  A more reputable publication would have pressed the artist on this point, since the obvious implication of this statement is a perhaps unexplored belief in the personhood of the unborn child.  Instead, the Times simply lets the quote, without any further exploration.

We can all imagine what would have happened if, rather than in the Middle East, Mr. Hirst had been asked to create this work for a hospital in a major American city.  In this country, where one may advertise for all sorts of contraceptives on television, but discussions of the realities of abortion and its aftermath are relegated almost exclusively to religious programming outlets, such a daring art installation would almost certainly be questioned and criticized openly by the media.  It is interesting to reflect on the fact that this piece was created for a country whose culture is supposedly possessed of far less freedom of expression that that which we enjoy, yet no hospital in America would dare to install a massive piece of life-affirming art on its front lawn.

Whatever his personal intentions here may have been, or for that matter whatever he himself may think of policies such as abortion on demand, Mr. Hirst has shown us the power, and indeed the danger, of art which seeks to portray the truth.  Here is a depiction of human life from its very beginnings which is not a simple illustration, but rather something absolutely monumental in scale, weighing well over 200 tons.  The potential danger here, to those who do not want us to view human life as such in all of its stages, is what the impact of this art may be.  And here we must consider not only those who are on the fence about the issue, but those who thought they understood what an individual human being’s development looks like.  A reasonable viewer of this piece may very well find themselves asking, at what stage in a child’s development they would feel comfortable in bringing about its death.

This not-so-little person portrayed in bronze is clearly designed to make us think, not only about anatomy and science, two subjects which have fascinated Mr. Hirst throughout his career to date, but about even more fundamental issues of life and death.  The size itself ought to tell us how large the stakes are, particularly when the person portrayed is shown as being as large as an automobile, rather than something which could be easily hidden away within the pages of a book, cropped out of a photograph, or buried within a blog post such as this.  For many therefore, this new installation must be a very disturbing work of art, indeed.

Hirst

Part of “The Miraculous Journey” by Damien Hirst (2013)
Sidra Medical and Research Center, Doha, Qatar

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